Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo recently stated his disappointment with the lack of substantive discussion around First Nations issues during the English language leaders’ debate. And he is certainly correct. Considering the important place all First Nations, Inuit and Métis people have in Canada’s past, present and future the amount of coverage Aboriginal issues are getting during this election is truly shameful.
Sure, there have been a few small flurries of discussion prompted by statements by a few politicians – one making a reference to ‘featherheads’ and another asserting that there is no such thing as Third World poverty in Canada – but these simply highlight the absence of true engagement with (and understanding of) Aboriginal issues in Canada.
So, what are the Aboriginal issues that we should be talking about? Who better to answer this question than the national organizations representing Canadian Aboriginals?
The Assembly of First Nations
The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) has created a comprehensive document listing actions “A government supportive to First Nations” would commit to.
The AFN has four main priority areas:
- Affirmation: recognition of rights and responsibilities; moving beyond the Indian Act, and implementing Treaties and agreements and settling claims.
- Education: investment in and enabling of a “sustainable, equitable First Nations education system supportive of First Nation language and culture.”
- Partnership: unlock “the economic potential of First Nations, supporting First Nation economies, new energy opportunities and affirming environmental responsibility.”
- Safety and Community Health: address “critical foundations of community health and safety including housing, safe drinking water, emergency response, community justice and intervention to affirm and protect the vital role of women and children.”
They also provide background which throws into stark relief the situation for First Nations across the country – 50% of First Nations youth do not complete high school; 44% of housing stock in First Nations communities is in need of major repairs; 90% of teen, urban sex-trade workers in Canada are Aboriginal girls under 18 years of age; and 114 First Nations communities are under drinking water advisories. These sorts of statistics, while shocking, provide only the briefest of glimpses into First Nations concerns and yet even these facts and their implications are barely acknowledged or understood in wider society. Compare the media response after the water supply in Walkerton caused death and illness to this latter situation, and ask why Aboriginal issues do not receive prominence.
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami
The Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) has produced a list of 11 questions for political parties on Inuit-specific issues that they view as most important.
- Housing: Inuit are the most likely in Canada to live in overcrowded homes. Overcrowding amongst Canada’s Inuit is well-documented and has been labelled a ‘crisis’ for several years now.
- Tuberculosis: In some Inuit communities in Canada the TB rate is 170 times the national average.
- Mental Health: Mental health centres in Inuit regions are needed to help combat widespread mental health issues.
• Child Hunger: 70% of Inuit preschoolers live in food insecure homes requiring the government to take action to end child hunger in Inuit communities.
- Education: In light of the residential schools legacy, the federal government should work with Inuit communities to reduce the education gap between Inuit and non-Inuit students.
- Climate change: Communities on the front line of climate change need help to mitigate and adapt to its effects, such as melting permafrost and changing environments.
The ITK also asks about party positions on natural resource development, uranium mining, protection of traditional hunting practices, language rights, and implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The fact that these questions need to be asked is especially telling – if a non-Inuit community’s lifestyle, language, food security, education system, health and basic community security were under threat would the rest of the country know about it? As it is now, few Canadians comprehend the social challenges amongst Inuit communities.
The Métis National Council
The Métis National Council (MNC) also created a questionnaire aimed at the various federal political parties, requesting equal treatment to that of other Aboriginal nations. Like the AFN and ITK they also address issues of education, health, funding and the residential schools’ legacy. Their questions are placed into four categories:
- Economic Issues: The MNC is looking for investment in Métis entrepreneurship, federal support for the creation of new Métis capital corporations, and the extension of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada community economic development funding to Métis Nation communities.
- Social Issues: The MNC is looking for a multilateral approach to Métis education and health issues and the redirection of federal resources allocated under the Urban Aboriginal Strategy to be used for urban Métis populations.
- Fiscal Issues: The MNC would like to see the current funding system replaced with “multi-year flexible transfer payments encompassing the core costs of Métis Nation governance (e.g. elections, citizenship registries, assemblies...)”
- Moral Issues: The MNC also places emphasis on the importance of ensuring Métis veterans receive their benefits, residential school victims receive compensation, an opening of the land claims resolution process to the Métis Nation, and the provision of test case funding to address outstanding legal issues.
An Uncomfortable Truth
Granted, some of the political parties have responded to questionnaires by the ITK and the MNC but the widespread discussion of these issues has been negligible at best – as evidenced by the amount of coverage they got during the leaders’ debates.
The very fact that we are not talking about these issues is something Canadians need to think about. What does it say about our nation that we are willing to let the need to remedy past oppression – the need to ensure basic human rights for all Canadians today – pass us by? It is a reality that must be faced. The answer we arrive at will almost certainly make us uncomfortable. However, before we let that stop us from engaging in this fundamental discussion, it must be acknowledged that, for some, this is a lived reality. Aboriginal peoples across Canada do not have the option of ignoring these issues, but are forced to deal with them (and the societal attitudes that let them be ignored) every day.
Questions for candidates can be found on the following websites: